by Amber Hoff, Sound Mind Therapy
Mental health of employees is at least in part the responsibility of the employer and should be a top priority for businesses. Much like COVID-19, no one is immune from the effects of stress. 2020 was a year unlike anything we had ever seen before. It is impossible to escape the strain and stress that has occurred and will continue to occur for some time yet in 2021. The impacts of prolonged trauma and stress have been researched for decades, and early numbers show that mental health worsened dramatically in 2020. By knowing what a mentally healthy workplace looks like and how to identify chronic stress in employees, businesses can create an environment that will lead to better productivity.
Mentally Healthy Workplaces
Employees who are employed by companies that have mentally healthy workplaces work harder. They are more productive and make less mistakes. They enjoy being at work and have loyalty and pride for the company they work for, which translates to retention of clients and partners. They network, they show up when needed, and are willing to take on extra tasks to benefit the company. They take less sick leave and are more pleasant to be around. They stick around for a long time, reducing cost of turnovers. These things all translate into better business, more productivity, and increased profit for the company.
How Does Prolonged Stress Present?
Prolonged stress not only affects an individual, but it affects literally every other system they are involved in. From relationships, to parenting, to work, to how they drive or the way they eat. Chronically stressed people act differently than people who are not under stress. Acute stress is short-lived and the brain will go back to the normal, calm state of being when the stressor is removed. Chronic stress from 2020 and continuing into 2021 is causing different sorts of problems from worsening physical and mental health, grief, job loss and insecurity, financial constraints, childcare concerns, and many others. What happens to our brains when the stressor is not removed?
Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 217 million workdays in the United States were lost due to mental health problems. Due to the effects of COVID-19, that number will be much higher, even in the years to come. Most of these people will not see a mental health professional. The impact of chronic stress often shows up in the workplace as either absenteeism or presenteeism.
Absenteeism means that employees are not at work. They are taking sick leave, short or long term disability, utilizing inpatient or outpatient services, attending doctor appointments or rehab. Presenteeism means they are at work physically, but not wholly at work mentally. These employees are present, but they aren’t performing up to speed and they aren’t performing well. Because of economic insecurity, we are likely to see many of the lost work days being contributed to presenteeism, especially due to working from home. These employees are more indecisive, they make more errors, they have a harder time focusing or aren’t doing their work and instead are engaging in self soothing behaviors (i.e. scrolling through Facebook, playing games, listening to podcasts). They are more likely to be injured on the job and more likely to respond poorly towards clients or customers.
Often times their state of mind comes out in their behaviors and moods. They experience mood changes such as increased irritability or have uncharacteristic changes in mood. They may regularly complain of headaches and fatigue, express poor judgement, and be more indecisive. They may even appear with poor boundaries, such as employees coming into work late, leaving early, or responding with inappropriate anger at something seemingly small and unimportant.
What Does a Mentally Healthy Workplace Do?
Encourage Self Care. Remind and encourage employees to take breaks, provide perks when able (i.e. allowing earbuds, bringing in snacks/meals), educate and encourage employees to utilize EAP or mental health benefits.
Schedule Educational Opportunities. Bring in mental health professionals to provide trainings or educate employees on the use of self-care and improving their mental health. Some businesses have found it beneficial to have cohorts or small groups where employees can check in to their groups and share how they’re doing.
Provide An Open Door. Employers should take an active role in noticing what’s going on in the office, consider an open-door policy and check in with their employees, have regular reviews and request feedback on the workplace environment/dynamics, acknowledge and validate employees, and be consistent when enforcing things such as a zero-tolerance policy for bullying or harassment.
Evaluate Physical Environment. Take time to improve the space to ensure employees are working in a safe and comfortable environment. When mental health is a priority at work, the employees begin to trust and provide feedback to employers on what they need or concerns they have. This working partnership leads to improved relationship dynamics in the office and higher work satisfaction in employees.
Lead by Example. Employers need to demonstrate good self-care and boundaries at work (and outside of work hours) and encourage employees to do the same.
Amber Hoff is a licensed marriage and family therapist and Owner of Sound Mind Therapy in Marion. If you or your company would like resources or education regarding self-care or mental health in the workplace, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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